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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Jun. 23, 2004
Updated, Jun. 23, 2004

QuickLink: A65648

Writing Tool #11: Back Off or Show Off

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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When the news or topic is most serious, understate. When the topic is least serious, exaggerate

George Orwell wrote, "Good writing is like a window pane." The best prose calls the reader's attention to the world being described, not to the writer's cleverness. When we look out the window onto the horizon, we don't notice the pane. Yet the pane frames our vision just as the writer frames our view of the story.

Most writers have at least two modes: One says "Pay no attention to the writer behind the screen. Look only at the world." The other says, without inhibition: "Look at me dance. Aren't I a clever fellow?" In rhetoric, these two modes have names. The first is called understatement. The second is called overstatement or hyperbole.

Here's a rule of thumb that works for me. The more serious or dramatic the subject, the more the writer backs off, creating the effect that the story is "telling itself." The more playful or inconsequential the topic, the more the writer can show off. Back off or show off.

Consider this lead to John Hersey's famous book "Hiroshima":

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl in the next desk.

This book, described by some as the most important work of nonfiction in the 20th Century, begins with the most ordinary of circumstances, a recitation of the time and date, and two office workers about to converse. The flashing of the atomic bomb almost hides inside that sentence. Because we can imagine the horror that is to follow, the effect of Hersey's understatement is chilling.

In 1958, R. M. Macoll, writing for an English newspaper, describes the execution of a man and woman in Saudi Arabia. The man is quickly and efficiently beheaded, but the woman suffers a crueler fate:

Now a woman was dragged forward. She and the man had together murdered her former husband. She, too, was under 30, and slender.

The recital of her crime too was read out as she knelt, and then the executioner stepped forward with a wooden stave and dealt a hundred blows upon her shoulder.

As the flogging ended, the woman sagged over on her side.

Next, a lorry loaded with rocks and stones was backed up and its cargo deposited in a pile. At a signal from the prince the crowd leaped and started pelting the woman to death.

It was difficult to determine how she was facing her last and awful ordeal, since she was veiled in Muslim fashion and her mouth was gagged to muffle her cries.

I can easily imagine a version of this passage laced with outrage, but I find the straightforward account vivid and disturbing, leaving room for my own emotional and intellectual response, that this is a cruel and unusual punishment, designed to keep women in their place.

Let's contrast such understatement to the spritely style of the great AP writer, Saul Pett, who wrote this description of New York City's colorful mayor Ed Koch:

He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocs, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable, and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeaceful place, a mayor who presides over the country's largest Babel with unseemly joy.

Pett's prose is over-the-top, a squirt of seltzer down your pants, as was Mayor Koch. Although municipal politics can be serious business, the context here allows Pett room for the full theatrical review.

The clever uber-writer can, in the words of Anna Quindlen, "write your way onto page one," as investigative reporter Bill Nottingham did the day his city editor assigned him to cover the local spelling bee: "Thirteen-year-old Lane Boy is to spelling what Billy the Kid was to gun-fighting, icy-nerved and unflinchingly accurate."

To understand the difference between understatement and overstatement, consider the cinematic difference between two Steven Spielberg movies. In "Schindler's List," Spielberg evokes the horrors of the Holocaust rather than depict them graphically. In a black and white movie, he makes us follow the life and inevitable death of one little Jewish girl dressed in red.

"Saving Private Ryan" reveals in grisly detail the gruesome warfare on the shores of France during the Invasion of Normandy, complete with severed limbs and spurting arteries. I, for one, favor the more restrained approach where the artist leaves room for my imagination.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

  1. Keep your eyes open for lively stories that make their way onto page one of the newspaper, even though they lack traditional news value. Discuss how they were written.
  2. Review some of the stories written after the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. Notice the difference between the stories that seemed "restrained" and the ones that seem "over-written."
  3. Read some examples of feature obits from The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief." Study the understated ways in which these are written.
  4. Read works of humor from writers such as Woody Allen, Roy Blount Jr., Dave Barry, S.J. Pearlman, or Steve Martin. Look for examples of both hyperbole and understatement.

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